There are two distinct sides to Ian Stroughair’s career. On the one hand, there are his star turns on the West End stage in Cats, Chicago and Fame and teaching gigs at Pineapple Dance Studios.

On the other, there’s Velma Celli, a sweet-voiced drag queen with a growing nationwide fan base.

Velma Celli

Thomas’s of York, 3 Museum Street, York

Fri Sept 18 @ 8pm

£11-£16.50

Buy tickets

“Both are very different,” says Ian. “There’s nothing quite like opening a show in the West End.

“If you’re a musical theatre actor, that’s where you want to be. My Velma show started out as an extra thing I did on the side to keep my brain ticking over, and now that’s become a success.

“I love the freedom that comes with it being my own work. I can do and sing whatever I want because it’s my baby.”

Ian Stoughair - the man behind the phenomenon that is Velma Celli
Ian Stoughair – the man behind the phenomenon that is Velma Celli

Velma first emerged when Ian was understudying in Chicago and ended up playing the role of Mary Sunshine, a female character. He explains what happened next.

I played opposite Jerry Springer (the man, not the opera) in that role, which was weird but wonderful, as he’s a really nice guy.

That was my introduction to drag and my way of learning to be believable as a woman.

Cult attraction

This experience planted a seed that blossomed at Madame Jojo’s in London. Ian and a few friends decided to pep up an evening out by cross-dressing, he ended up singing on stage and was asked to come back with his own show.

Since then, he’s become a cult attraction in the West End – and the east too, appearing as a drag act in the Queen Vic during a short spell on EastEnders.

Camp and fabulous

So how does he describe the Velma Celli experience?

For me it’s all about the singing. I pick songs to make people feel a certain way.

I’ll do something camp and fabulous like an impressions medley, then I’ll move on to an acoustic, heartfelt, really lovely moment to portray a song as it was written, before it was over-produced.

Quite often songwriters try to take you on a journey. I work out what that journey is and act it out.

Singing and acting

Audiences often assume that, as a drag act, Ian won’t be able to sing or act, and that they’re in for a night of the lightest of light entertainment.

But they get so much more than lip-synching in sequins – although, according to Ian, that can be a very good thing.

Don’t get me wrong, we all need that. I love to go along to a cabaret venue or gay bar and see a fabulous drag queen being ridiculous.

But with my show, it’s nice that people are touched, and they feel like they may have learned something.

From EastEnders to York Railway Institute, Velma Celli knows how to put on a show
From EastEnders to York Railway Institute, Velma Celli knows how to put on a show

This is the first time Ian has brought his definitive show back home to York, where he began his acting career at 14 in a York Theatre Royal production of Kes. He’s clearly looking forward to his unusual homecoming.

You’re not necessarily going to see a drag queen in Betty’s but I do think York’s ready and has progressed. People are really embracing Velma Celli.

I like that they’re intrigued, because it gives me a chance to show them what drag and cabaret is all about. It’s a great responsibility and I want to make sure I do it well.